Strategy in business can be one of many things, from a flashy document that no one reads to a living, breathing part of a company’s culture. I talked to Bridget Thakrar, Head of People & Operations at AgTech startup Sensand, about what makes the difference and how to turn strategy into meaningful action.
This article is a summary of our interview with Bridget in the Playing the Culture Game podcast, a fortnightly interview series where we dive deep into the people & culture space.
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What does “strategy to action” mean for you?
Bridget: For a long time, strategy always felt to me like it was elusive.
Strategy was something that started in a secret room or on a retreat, and people would come back, and you’d have this glossy document that no one read. No one would understand how their role aligned with it. Back then, I’d think, maybe I just don’t get strategy; maybe I’m not smart enough or something.
All that changed when I got introduced to OKRs. I saw how when you have really clearly articulated goals and measurables, a strategy doesn’t have to take a week to pull together, and it’s way more practical. And it makes it so much easier for everyone in a business to see how their day-to-day contributes to strategy.
“OKRs and strategy are a really practical way to impact what people do each day and have them actually drive a business forward.”
This is what I’m passionate about: not over-complicating things, not getting people together in a room and using big words, but instead using OKRs to help every person connect their day-to-day with a business strategy.
How to get strategy right
What makes a successful strategic plan?
Bridget: There are several things. The first one — and it’s often overlooked — is an outside perspective. What are our competitors doing? What does the external landscape look like? I think it’s important to spend some time there.
And second: continuity and focus. I’ve been in organisations who’d do strategy sessions where there’d be no feeling of learning lessons. Every time we got together, it would be like starting with a blank. Didn’t we talk about the economy last year?
“In strategy, you always want to be looking at your horizon. That’s really important, but a bit of backward-looking is OK too. What did you say last year? What’s the same? What’s different?”
And that flows into the third thing, which is people’s input. In strategy sessions, if you’re not building on something, people will start asking, what’s the point? Even if they share their views, they know they’ll be there in 12 months’ time saying the same things again.
So once people have contributed to a strategy point, they need to be taken through it. You need to show them: this is how your views have impacted our strategy and shaped what we’re going to be doing in the future.
How do you create a good environment for everyone’s input?
Bridget: There’s definitely a balance between doing a half-yearly offsite and having too many people contributing too often, so your business flip-flops between ideas.
It also depends on your type of business. In my case, we’re running two big projects, both in emerging industries. If we don’t have our whole team constantly looking out for what’s new or what our competitors are doing, we’ll miss out. So we use technology a lot to keep up. We have different Slack channels that are set up for different interests, and we’re constantly sharing articles and ideas.
Wherever you’re at, it comes down to leveraging people. You need people who are passionate about your space. You’re missing out on a big opportunity if you’re not capitalising on that and using that input for your strategy.
“If you're not leveraging everybody in your business to keep up with the risks, what's emerging, and what are some new ideas, and you’re not being open to that, you'll miss out.”
How do you deal with conflicting opinions?
Bridget: Most likely, your founders are going to have a say in what you do. They’re the ones who’ve done their market research and invested the most blood, sweat, and tears. But what you really don't want is to have a big session where everyone on the team says Path A is the right way to go, and the founder’s saying, “we’ll never do that”. That’s just disillusioning everyone.
So one important thing is to feel out leadership input first. Try to get some insight from your leaders about how flexible they are and what’s in or out before you open up a discussion to the masses.
The other thing you can do is be clear with people up front.
“You don't want people's input to come in and then have them feel like they're not being heard. So you need to be clear around how their input is going to be used.”
There are different decision processes: maybe you have to have a consensus, or maybe people are going to have the chance to give their input but the founder has the last word, or whatever. All of those are fine, but people need to know.
How to choose and use OKRs
How do you find good OKRs?
Bridget: As a quick fix, I’d say Google is a good place to start. Businesses aren’t so unique that there aren’t already good measures out there. Somebody’s probably done the hard work already.
But you do need data. At Sensand, we’ve found it challenging to find the right OKRs because we’re still pre-launch for our two platforms, so we don’t have much to draw on. Once we’re live, we’ll have more to work with, like customer data, attention, and annual recurring revenue.
I think you have to be careful, too, because the OKRs that are easiest to measure aren’t always the best indicators of what you want. People say that with good OKRs, you should be able to look at the end of the quarter and it’s black and white: did you achieve it or not? So sometimes the tendency is to put milestones rather than outcomes. That’s easy, but those OKRs aren’t necessarily the most helpful.
In summary, you have to do some thinking to get good OKRs, but you can start with what’s there.
Lead or lag?
Bridget: Lead indicators are super important. You don’t want to be always measuring something that’s done after the fact.
Back when I was looking after safety and still in the people space, we’d have indicators like how often our leaders were getting out on site, because we figured if we got leadership presence and attention to safety right, we’d have fewer safety incidences down the track.
But it took us a while to even get that one right. After all, you can have lots of people going out on site, but if they’re not having quality conversations out there and just distracting people instead, that can actually make safety worse.
Another thing we did in the safety space was invest more proactively in resilience and mental wellbeing and good offerings for taking leave. We knew that if we did that up front we’d have fewer worker injuries.
So a mixture of lead and lag, yes, but it’s not easy. Sometimes you need to be a data specialist to be able to see everything and say, well, if we do this now it will have this impact down the line.
What are your tips for getting OKRs right?
Bridget: There are several. First, be patient. In my experience, it can take 18 months to two years to get some things right.
Second, plan early and involve people. At Sensand, we did our first quarter with just the execs, but then we rolled it out to the whole team. It was so cool to have the whole team on one of our offsite days giving input for our OKRs because they were so much closer to the product than we were.
The only problem was that we were still finalising our OKRs six weeks through the quarter. So the lesson I’d give is to have your offsite maybe three weeks before the current quarter ends, so everyone knows what they’re doing and you get a full three months to capitalise on that work.
Another tip: have someone who’s driving things forward, but spread the load. It’s great to set up someone as an overall OKR Lead, but one thing we found when I was at South East Water was that that person gets a lot of pressure.
Instead of piling on the pressure, you can have dedicated leads for each KR, where each person is responsible for just one measure. It means you don’t have everything resting on just a few people.
And the last thing is actually my favourite Sensand value: “better, not perfect”. That means it’s OK to say, “Hey, we haven’t figured this out yet. We’ll measure this OKR and see if it’s helpful or not, and if it isn’t, we can change it.” Thinking like that is a great way to encourage creativity.
Managing strategy in a fast-paced business
What’s the best frequency for strategic planning?
Bridget: You’ve got to look at the horizon that’s important for the size and pace of your business. Maybe start with quarterly, pick your focus and some action, and test it.
We’re a really fast-moving business, and for our first strategy session, we tried a 12-month focus for our five most important strategies. But then we found we solved one problem in a fortnight, so that strategy wasn’t relevant anymore.
And actually, that was OK. I think the beauty of a framework like OKRs is that you can follow them for a quarter or even a couple of weeks and then say, “That’s not relevant. We’re not going to put our resources into that area, because it’s not going to give us the most bang for our buck.”
How do you communicate strategy in a fast-paced industry?
Bridget: I think we have to be mindful, especially post-Covid, of how people are burnt out.
“People have to be allowed to say, I’ve only got these many hours in a week so I just don’t have the capacity for this new project. You have to be able to have those conversations, especially when your strategy is changing fast.”
Communication is so important. Just recently, we made a change and we didn’t communicate it well. So some of the other teams were still working crazy hours to meet a deadline for something we’d said last month. We had to say, well, we just pushed that deadline back. That was an oversight on our part.
So a strategy document should be a living, breathing document. We’ve got it up on our Confluence page. It’s live and it’s got people tagged to it, different people who own it. That gives us the flexibility to say, OK, that OKR wasn’t right, or let’s scrap this, or let’s change that.
It’s so, so different from previous places I worked where we’d actually send the document off to the printer. We’d spend all that money on printing so there’s no way we’d change it afterwards! It was literally the opposite of a live document.
But that’s just us. The best format for you is whatever suits the requirements of your business.
And this is going to sound basic, but also in response to speed of change, we started having good 1-on1s, and it’s been great to have those frequent check-ins and workload discussions. I think when we were smaller, we felt we could talk to everybody, so we didn’t need that. Now we do, and 1-on-1s are great for communication.
How do you keep strategy alive?
Bridget: Like I said, 1-on-1s are super helpful. You need a line of sight from your high-level strategy through your quarterly focus to what people are doing in their day-to-day. I think good, regular 1-on-1 conversations are critical to showing people how what they’re doing relates to strategy and building on that.
And the other thing is celebrations. A lot of people, myself included, are super driven to just keep moving. We don’t look back. It’s like an entrepreneurial thing.
“You need to make time to celebrate and give positive reinforcement of what people did. ‘Look: we said this was important, and look what we achieved as a team.’ It’s good to sit back and smell the roses.”
When you celebrate, it’s that motivation piece. Next time you do a strategy session, people are more likely to be excited, because they’ve felt good about what they’ve achieved as a team and they can see how strategy fits with that.